The card player has ground it out. He's survived, he's played well, and now he smiles to himself. It's the trump card. He has it, and the game changes. This won't be one he grinds out, hoping to survive. This is one he needs to take. He needs to shoot higher.
The Twins missing trump card has become obvious in the last two weeks as three games slipped away. Twice versus Boston and once versus Detroit a game was lost because there wasn't a dominant presence to step on the eighth inning's neck. But it turns out that guy hasn't just been important this year. For the Twins, that second best bullpen guy has mattered a lot, usually being the one of (or even the) most important pitcher on the staff. This year, he's the missing trump card.
That might be hard to believe. We traditionally measure a player's effectiveness using cumulative and full-season statistics, and in that context the best middle reliever doesn't usually shine. After all, they usually only pitch half the innings of even the fourth best starter. Certainly, the market hasn't recognized them as being particularly valuable, with the exception of whoever the Yankees had targeted to serve as a bridge to Mariano Rivera.
But we use those full-season statistics for a reason. We don't know the situation a ballplayer faced when he walked to the plate. It could be when the team was down by five runs with the bases empty, or it could be when the bases were loaded late in a one-run game. We assume that those situations "even out" so we can judge the batter by his overall stats.
But that randomness doesn't apply to the best non-closer in the bullpen. He's only rarely used in games that have been decided. The majority of his appearances happen in close games - and late in close games. His impact on any game in is signficant. And you can see just how significant using the Win Probability Added (WPA) stat.
I could spend the rest of this entry writing a definition of WPA, so let's start with this one from Wikipedia:
Win Probability Added is a technical baseball statistic which attempts to measure a player's win contribution by figuring how much each specific play he made altered the outcome of a game.
There's an elegant beauty about how it's figured with precision, but I don't want to go into all of that. Suffice to say that it gives extra credit for performing in crucial situations, almost no credit for performing in non-crucial situation, and absolutely no credit for fielding, which is probably it's biggest weakness. And it has other limitations, such as difficulty in predicting a player's future impact, since it doesn't know what kind of situations a player will face.
But it is really, really good for evaluating how big an impact a player had on a game or a season. And for the Twins run this decade, it shows just how effective the best non-closer in the bullpen has been. Below is a list of who that player has been each year, and how they ranked against the entire rest of the team (not just pitchers) in WPA:
2002 - JC Romero - Best WPA on the team
2003 - Latroy Hawkins - Best WPA on the team
2004 - Juan Rincon - 6th best WPA on the team
2005 - Jesse Crain - 2nd best WPA on the team
2006 - Juan Rincon - 6th best WPA on the team
2007 - Pat Neshek - 2nd best WPA on the team
2008 - Matt Guerrier - 6th best WPA on the team
The ability to use a certain player at a certain point is a key weapon for a baseball team, allowing a manager to leverage his best performing players in the most critical situations. A dominant bullpen arm, be it a closer or otherwise, essentially gives the manager a trump card to use wherever and whenever it most suits him.
Gardenhire is doing a decent job of playing the cards he has been dealt, given the injury to Neshek and the decline of Rincon. But as Bill Smith schmoozes this week at the All-Star Game, he needs to understand that the Twins are at least one card short of a winning hand. And it his his responsibility to get that trump card.
Got an email from a friend this weekend after Saturday's game...
What's Gardenhire's effing problem? Tying run on second, two outs in the eighth, removing Reyes because a righty is now at the plate, and he goes to Bass because it's not yet the ninth so Nathan is off limits? Lame. Bass got out of the inning fine, but these are the kinds of small decisions that do cost teams ballgames.
I can't argue with this. In general, I think the rending of garments about how the Twins use Joe Nathan is misguided, but my friend is right. Nathan had worked both nights before, but he had also thrown just nine pitches in Friday's game. If he isn't used in that situation, exactly when will he be extended? And it further demonstrates the necessity of getting that second dominant bullpen arm.